Partisanship threatens to delay broad infrastructure investment

While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are optimistic that highway spending has the bipartisan support it needs to pass this year, there is growing concern about the viability of broader infrastructure spending moving on the same timetable.

During a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing Wednesday, EPW Chair Tom Carper, D-Del., said he plans to get a surface transportation bill marked up by Memorial Day and work across the aisle with ranking member Sen. Shelley Capito, R- W.Va.

“Senator Capito and I, along with our staffs, are already getting to work,” Carper said. “Last week, we invited all of our Senate colleagues to share their states’ policy priorities with us so we can begin drafting legislation this spring.”

In 2019, the EPW committee unanimously passed a bipartisan highway bill, but it never had a finance component and never received further consideration before expiring when the new Congress began this year.

Lawmakers can agree that infrastructure needs improvement, it’s worth paying for and that those who use roads, highways and bridges have a “responsibility to pay for them,” Carper said. Carper advocated for a national vehicle miles traveled fee, which his committee called for back in 2019.

“Last Congress, EPW led by example—we unanimously approved our bill to improve and expand our surface transportation programs, and we did it 18 months before the last five-year surface transportation reauthorization bill expired,” Carper said. The current law expires on Sept. 30, 2021.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has plans to move a surface transportation infrastructure bill similar to the highway funding component of a bill passed by the House but not the Senate in the previous Congress. The surface transportation element of that bill was combined with an overarching infrastructure bill and included many municipal bond provisions such as reinstating tax-exempt advance refunding, increasing the bank-qualified bond cap and creating a new kind of direct-pay bond.

During an American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials webinar Wednesday, both House T&I Chair Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo. promoted bipartisanship for a surface transportation bill.

Graves said the committee plans to put together language this spring for a multi-year bill. Capito said the bill would likely be a five-year authorization.

DeFazio plans to focus on climate change and resilience projects in a surface transportation bill.

“We’re going to do real infrastructure investment, but it is also going to be very transformative,” DeFazio said.

However, some lawmakers worry about a push to pass a broader infrastructure bill via the budget reconciliation process meaning only a simple majority in the Senate would be needed to pass the bill.

“The strong bipartisan support that exists for a surface transportation reauthorization bill and other infrastructure legislation will not extend to a multi-trillion dollar package that is stocked full with ideologically driven, one-size-fits-all policies that tie the hands of states and communities,” Capito said.

On Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is Senate Budget Committee chair, told Axios that the reconciliation process could be used to get a broader infrastructure bill through.

The House is already moving towards passing a COVID-19 relief bill through the reconciliation process. Reconciliation could be used one more time before Sept. 30, 2021 for infrastructure, if so, that bill would have a more stimulus-like approach.

“There is one train of thought that they use that as the stimulative bill and then they follow that later in the year with a more traditional surface transportation authorization,” Ed Mortimer, the U.S Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of transportation and infrastructure told The Bond Buyer in a separate interview.

New policies, such as reauthorization, cannot be created in the reconciliation process.

The Chamber is not advocating for reconciliation to be used for infrastructure, Mortimer said.

“We’d like for infrastructure to come to an agreement on this in a bipartisan manner where we don’t need to use reconciliation,” he said.

If lawmakers do decide to go that route, Mortimer predicts increasing funding for programs such as water and broadband and increased investment levels for discretionary programs such as Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grants. Climate change initiatives could also be included through increased funding, instead of changing policy, Mortimer said.

“Any policy change that Congress makes, you’re going to need to get 60 votes in the U.S. Senate and that’s obviously a challenge in the current environment,” Mortimer said.

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